Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hidden Local Treasures: Ellwood House in DeKalb, Illinois

One of my favorite movies is Fried Green Tomatoes. It tells the story of two girls from a small, rural town in Alabama. The best element of the film (and book) is the overwhelming intricacy given to each person in the small town. Vivid, captivating stories splash you through love, murder, friendship, pride, abuse...you name it, this town's experienced it. It absolutely thrills me to the core to think each and every town, city, and home in America (in the world!) can paint a similar portrait of life; for each person, a tale to be told. How many stories lie in waiting? How many disappear from existence with a dying breath, never to be heard?

It is beautiful that we need only to look around to learn about deeply involved affairs of generations of families, governments, and communities. Over the weekend I drove to DeKalb, Illinois. My mother had suggested we visit a place called the Ellwood House, and because I am nosy and love, love, love looking at other peoples' homes, I hurriedly agreed.

Now DeKalb isn't really known for it's beauty and history. I mean, it is the home of Northern Illinois University, so there's some history there, but when people are looking for, "exciting, historical tourist towns in Illinois," they rarely consider DeKalb. I don't think people could even point to its general location in the state if asked. So you get the point. It's a little bit of an "eh" town.

It may surprise you, as it did me, to learn DeKalb is actually quite beautiful. It's surrounded by crop farms, freight train lines, and long roads. I drove through miles of rolling, corn-peppered fields, passed a teeny town without a single traffic light, and had to pass more than one tractor going about 5mph on the shoulder. It was comforting and I felt free.

Upon arriving to Ellwood House, we were greeted by a native DeKalbian (you're dang right I made that up) who seemed to have known the Ellwood family her entire life. She led us through the grounds and throughout the 3-story home, telling us stories the entire way.

You may not know (because frankly, who would), DeKalb is often considered the "home" of barbed wire. It was invented and later distributed in DeKalb way back in the late 1800's by a man named Joseph Glidden. Isaac Ellwood became Joseph Glidden's partner, hence the huge, giant mansion tour.

The home was handed down from generation to generation. It is literally a time capsule; the home was only recently handed over to the city, so the Ellwood family furniture, collections, and memories remain intact. From the architecture, to the small bathtubs (they were SHORT back then!), to the extensive book collections, to the Italian statues, this home almost breathes with you. It's walls carry sweet lullabies to small Ellwood babies, muffle hushed arguments between couples, and quiet the worries of a servant who accidently broke a piece of china. It was fascinating.

They've reconstructed and polished most of the original architecture, although our trusty guide mentioned a few times they've had a difficult time determining exactly what was part of the original construction and what was added later by other generations. One generation in particular seemed very fond of bay windows, light, flowers, and fairies....so in other words, they were the "Jen" generation.

Now while our guide was very nice and knowledgeable, I get a bit flaky and inattentive when I'm exploring. I have no idea which Ellwood generation expanded the dining room and I can't remember the name of the wife who loved to sing. I do remember, however, that one of the husbands passed away and the wife consequently closed off her anguish by sealing the entire 2nd and 3rd floors. She later isolated herself in what I consider to be an attached porch. It wasn't until the next generation moved in that the top two floors were opened again. Imagine the mysteries they uncovered!

The family loved to collect things. There's these funky little statues from England all over the place. One of the wives loved to hoard so much, they built her collections their own house:

The kids were blessed, as well. It was rare to find a family with a 100% child-rearing success rate; many children died from illness back in those days. I can't remember exactly how many children she had, but I want to say one of the wives birthed eight kids, all of them living to adulthood. One of the Ellwoods build this for his kids, I want to say it was the second generation...notice the deer off to the left of this wonderland pic.
Once my kid called me Super Mom for making a nest out of crumpled magazine pages. 'Nuff said.

The city was fortunate enough to enlist the help of one of the Ellwood daughters. She came to the house, told them what it looked like, gave them a few of her things, and assisted with the redesign. Her room was my favorite. It was light, with a bold, floral wallpaper covering every wall, built-in bookshelves, and a sink tucked in a corner by a big, beautiful window overlooking the gardens.

Her room was next to a corridor that led to the nanny's quarters. I thought it was so strange the nursery was on the opposite side of the home from the master bedroom.....my Mommy anxiety would be off the CHAIN, people.

The kitchen was in the basement and our guide said it was one of the best kitchens you could work in at the time. They had large windows to air the place out and their own dining area. They also had an intercom system and a dumbwaiter, both considered very posh. I kinda wanted to make an iPhone joke, but I didn't think it would be well-received.

I was able to snap a few pictures of the inside right before I stupidly asked if it was legal. This is the library. Those bookcases are original and at one point an important person, Teddy Roosevelt, I think, was entertained in this room.

Turns out taking pictures was not legal, so alas, you have only my description to lead you through the majority of the home. I do suggest, however, if you are ever in the area, to stop at this magnificent place and submerse yourself in it's rich past. Who would've ever thought a seemingly-boring college town like DeKalb would hold so many beautiful stories.

1 comment:

  1. You can definitely add me to the list of people who have no idea where Dekalb is. What a beautiful home. Thank you for sharing.

    As always your descriptions are incredible and make me want to run right out and figure out where DeKalb is!